Do you ever have those days when you feel so well put together? Your hair comes out just right in the morning, you're wearing your favorite outfit--the one that makes you feel interesting, and attractive, and capable? You feel confident, and happy, and shining?
I had a day like that last week. I walked into my downtown Starbucks after dropping L. off at school and stood in line with all the other well-dressed, confident, busy, interesting people who mob that particular location every weekday morning.
I waited for my coffee. I thought my thoughts. When people looked at me while I waited in line I imagined it was because of who I was at that moment. Me. Myself at my best. I felt good.
The other day, I ran into a colleague who wanted to know if I had noticed anything different about her. I hadn't, unfortunately; it turned out she was wearing new glasses.
"That's okay," she said. "I've found out that once you hit 50 you're pretty much invisible."
She was half-joking, of course, not trying to make me feel badly. But on my way home from work that day I kept thinking about her comment. It worried me. Was it true? Was my visibility as a person even now, at forty, starting to slip away?
I have never liked being too visible. As a teenager I was never the kind of young person who would go out of her way to make herself very visible to the rest of the world; accepted, yes--but very visible, no. When I became a mother I found that motherhood provided its own type of cloak of invisibility. While in some ways I was very visible as a new mother, then as a mother of two children, then as a mother of two older children who sometimes behave badly in stores, and sometimes very nicely, prompting congratulatory remarks from onlookers about how well-behaved my kids are, I am also comfortably invisible when I am with them. When you move around in public with your children you become a cardboard cut-out of who people think you should be, and they color in your outline accordingly. You are judged, you are admired, you are dismissed, but you are never fully visible to anyone who doesn't know you well.
I still remember how strange it felt the first time I went out into the world alone, stripped and laid bare, without my new baby next to me. I still remember what it felt like to leave two-year old L. at home with Scott and drive off, to be away from him for five whole hours while I taught and moved around in a world that didn't include his physical presence, his touch, his voice, his needs.
I still remember what it felt like to leave him at preschool for the first time and walk away, on trembling legs, and to sit in my van and wait, and feel my heart shudder and crack a little, like a tree, giving way to the axe.
The scars had barely healed--the edges still pink and tender--when there I was, a new mother again, bent over my baby in the dark, watching her nurse, already thinking about the unbearable day when I would have to walk away, for a few hours, and exist in a world without her.
And when I did leave her, at six months old, in that cold, metallic operating room and she looked at me from the operating table before the mask was pushed over her face, her fists balled up, her eyes wide circles, I thought for certain I could never walk the hallway back to the waiting room; I would crumple on the spot, fold in two, fade away entirely. But I didn't. I pumped milk around the clock, I waited, I changed bandages, I negotiated IV lines, and I found a strength and resilience I didn't know I had.
If having a child cleaves you in two, literally and metaphorically, over and over again, reclaiming the visible parts of yourself--the parts that spent years-- decades, even, curled up inside of you, always there but quietly waiting, is an infinitely more painful process. I have been waiting for it; not greedily, but patiently. Waiting to stretch and rise and gather up those quiet parts of myself; making them visible, and shining, and good.